Bahtinov Mask: Equipment Spotlight [Focus]

There are numerous objects in the night sky. Using a telescope brings them into view but how do you bring them into focus. The simple answer is turn the knob on the focuser until it looks clear to you. I thought this to be effective with astrophotography, until I learned that focused for my eye was not the same as focused for my Google Pixel. That’s when I turned to the Bahtinov Mask.

Bahtinov Mask: What is it?

3D Printed Bahtinov Masks
Blue: Meade ETX-125
Black: Orion Astroview 6

As you have already gathered a Bahtinov Mask is used to focus a telescope. Invented in 2005, by Russian astrophotographer Pavel Bahtinov, it consists of 3 patterned sections. The pattern is designed to create a diffraction spike to the viewer. Although the pattern makes the spikes, the mask takes advantage of the aperture stop in the optical system to create the view. The two shown here are 3D printed from two different materials. One is softer than the other, but these can be found on many 3D printer sites. However it is your choice to have online companies print for you or print yourself at home. Your local library may also have a printer you can use for a small fee.

Bahtinov Mask: How to Use

Bahtinov Mask on Scope
3D Printed Bahtinov Mask on Scope

My telescope and camera are set up, and now it is time to focus. It is important to focus my scope before doing a drift polar alignment. I will explain polar alignment is a future post. I place the Bahtinov Mask on the front of the telescope. Next I point the telescope at a bright star. Actually, any relatively bright star will do. Once complete I proceed to the step of adjusting. I can then do this next step with the eyepiece, but once the camera is installed, the focus is different. So I begin by opening APT (Astrophotography Tool) on my laptop or Camera FV-5 on my Google Pixel. Using this app I begin taking pictures of the star with the camera. What I see on the screen, I use to adjust the telescope focuser. Now complete, I remove the mask and begin to polar align the telescope.

Bahtinov Mask: Photo Results Explained

Focus Example
Focus Example

Shown above are pictures taken with the Bahtinov Mask installed. It is the same star with different focus. Out of focus are the left and right. Conversely, the center is focused. The pattern on the Bahtinov Mask create the 3 lines or spikes crossing the star. My goal is to adjust the focuser knob to move the center spike equal distant between the other two. This is the achieved focus. Simple enough. Try it and let me know your results.

Bahtinov Mask: Conclusion

Bahtinov Masks 2
3D printed Bahtinov Masks

The Bahtinov Mask is a great tool to achieve optimum or perfect focus. APT and other software can assist in achieving perfect focus for your photos. Although they are inexpensive, 3D printing them can save more. They expertly help focus on planets, Nebula and start clusters. Unfortunately there is no benefit to use with the Moon and Sun. In fact, using on the Sun is dangerous. So however you acquire one, take your next great photo using the Bahtinov Mask. Enjoy and clear skies.

2019 Total Lunar Eclipse [Astrophotography]

Progression from start to totality

Total Lunar Eclipse

The total lunar eclipse was beautiful! I took more than 500 pictures of this event to create this photo. The 2019 total lunar eclipse wowed and amazed. My social media feeds were inundated with photos from the amateur photographer to professional photographer. I’m somewhere in between, although I did have an opportunity to help my neighbor acquire several photos with his camera.

Total Lunar Eclipse Photo Explained

The total lunar eclipse starts with the full moon (bottom left) and is called the Wolf Moon. Wolf because all full moons in January are wolf moons. The full moon is called super when closest to Earth. The next pictures are showing the shadow of the Earth as it crosses the surface of the Moon. The final two pictures show the distinctive red color that comes from bent light passing through the Earth’s atmosphere. The red color also gives this event the final word to it’s title of Super Wolf Blood Moon.

The time from start to totality (point where eclipse is total), was about 1 hour 45 minutes. This photo contains single unedited shots combined in a mosaic. It was a long night and I assisted my neighbor with is photo taking experience. So expect to see more post processed photos in the coming days.

Total Lunar Eclipse How To

I posted a few of my unedited photos and the question “What did you use?” came up several times. I used my Orion Astroview 6 inch reflector telescope and my Google Pixel smartphone. With this setup, polar alignment doesn’t have to be perfect. The short shutter time of 0.6 seconds means I have to take a lot of pictures to get a longer exposure. Since my target was the moon, longer exposure photos were not needed.

Total Lunar Eclipse: Super Wolf Blood Moon

For my neighbor he used a Canon camera on a tripod with at 500 mm lense. He and I both set our cameras to ISO 800. He bumped up his shutter open time to 1 sec and achieved great photos at totality.

Hopefully you enjoyed this post. Let me know in the comments.

Smartphone Astrophotography Challenges [Obstacles]

What Smartphone Astrophotography Obstacles?

I’ve been “Missing In Action” with my smartphone astrophgraphy for many months now. Let me tell you why. First was the Android P or Android Pie update to my Google Pixel. Then the almost constant rainy or cloudy weather. And finally my love of basketball season. If you’re a purist, you’ve most likely clicked away, and that’s ok. Smartphone Astrophotography is not for the serious astrophotographer with expensive telescopes and mounts.

Smartphone Astrophotography Obstacle 1

Google Pixel Really Blue

The first item to discuss is the software update. With all phones, there are monthly security updates and yearly major updates for your phone. The yearly ones bring new features to your phone and also make your phone eat through it’s battery life. This is what happend when Android Pie was installed on my Google Pixel. Immediately, the phone heated up to unbearable levels, and my battery life dropped from 18 hours to 4 hours.

Apple, Samsung, LG, etc are not immune to this. They happen in varying degrees. Anyone who uses one for smartphone astrophotography are at risk to experiencing the battery life of their phone decrease. Also the heat can damage other functions on the phone as well.

In my case I decided to call Google to help rectify the situation. The first attempt was met with Google putting me on hold, then hanging up after 20 minutes of waiting. I made the second attempt while on a 3 hour long drive home. Google had me wait 1.5 hours then transferred me for another 30 minute wait. Once in conversation with tech support, they requested to call me the next day at 2 pm because of the background noise in my car. I never received the call.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. I’m not going for a third attempt. Clearly the only language Google responds to is money. The support for the new Pixel 2 XL and Pixel 3 and high. Since I have the new phones, I purchased a small battery pack which I will use this to keep the Google Pixel alive while capturing video or other photos.

Smartphone Astrophotography Obstacle 2

Weather!

Partly Cloudy Sky

Oh one word wasn’t enough. Well a little bit more about my area of the world. It likes to rain often. I can be weeks before a clear day hits the forecast.

I recommend cleaning lenses, learning astrophotography through YouTube, improving your post processing skill in Gimp or Photoshop, collimating your reflector telescope or 3D printing accessories for your hobby. I’ve done all of this to include rediting old photos with new techniques I’ve learned.

The other option is to take a trip to an area with clear skies to enjoy the view. Great options are star parties. AmSky.com maintains a calendar of events the world over. These are mostly large events, so keep a look out for any local events in your area.

Smartphone Astrophotography Obstacle 3

Life is what we’re living and nothing is given. Enjoy family and friends just as much as you do your smartphone astrophotography hobby. I enjoy my job being on the leading edge of technology. I also enjoy coaching my girls and their middle school/high school basketball team.

These are perfect options for when the sky and/or equipment isn’t cooperating. Some of these are first priorities and may not be considered an obstacle. Unless there is something off. In any case finding a balance between life and your hobby can be challenging.

Conclusion

Ok the third obstacle is a stretch. I needed a little bit of filler here. The focus for all the smartphone astrophotography obstacles is creatively using it as an opportunity. I acquired a Canon XTi camera for instance and spent they gloomy days learning how to use it with my telescopes. I learned a lot about why it doesn’t work with one of my scopes and works well with the other. There are many opportunities to keep your hobby going, enjoy them.

Dark Sky Astrophotography [Smokey Mountain Getaway]

August is a busy month for my family, and we took a weekend to visit the Smokey Mountains in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  Wow what a great opportunity to do dark sky astrophotography with my Google Pixel.  I was so excited I didn’t know what to do with myself.  The visit was also the same weekend of the Perseids meteor shower peak.

Dark Sky Astrophotography

Mikly Way Photo
Telescope: None
Camera: Google Pixel

In the category of “don’t let this happen to you,” I completely forgot every technique I learned previous to this night.  My sky glow filter never made it out of the case, I left my red flashlight at home and the barlow stayed in the case as well. For you this is the reality of astrophotography, not every night goes according to plan.  I normally just take video of the planets, but this night I ended with a few shots of the Milky Way.  Here the theme of “I forgot what to do” continues.  I made no exposure adjustments to the Google Pixel camera.  I took the photo freehand (no tripod).  Yet, the photo, after post processing, is surprising.  You can see Mars and Saturn and the faint glow of the Milky Way.  Helpful tip: If you can’t see it, turn up the brightness on your screen.  Needless to say my first Dark Sky Astrophotography session was almost a complete bust.

It Was Fun Regardless

Dark Sky Astrophotography Setup
Telescope: Meade EXT-125
Camera: Google Pixel

When I arrived at the top of the mountain, my two guests J10 and J12 (shorthand for 2 of my 3 kids) quickly began to complain.  I was too cold and too many people were said in chorus.  I picked a spot and set up my Meade EXT-125 telescope.  The night began with showing numerous guests Venus, Juipter, Saturn and Mars.  It was a beautiful sight, the sky was clear and the number of stars visible numbered in the thousands.  If you have never been to a dark sky location, plan a get away and go.  Not only is dark sky astrophotography better there, but the views are priceless.  I live very close to several large cities and the light pollution is hiding all the beauty.

Never Stop Learning

A few meteors cross the sky spectacularly then I’m requested to help another work her Nikon DSLR camera.  Cool I thought, this would be interesting.  So I proceeded to discuss long exposure photography tips I learned online (of which I’m not an expert).

Smokey Mountain Planets Photo
Telescope: Meade EXT-125
Camera: Google Pixel

Hopefully, the results were good.  In addition to the Milky Way photo, I captured the four planets shown in the picture above.  Again none were taken with a filter or Barlow lens.  I guess I lost myself once I saw the clarity of these planets in my scope.  Venus was first and is in a quarter phase.  Then Jupiter put on a show as always.  The visitors kept asking me to view Jupiter more than any other of the four.  Once Saturn appeared, I lost most of my guests and began to capture the video I would later edit.  Finally Mars came into view and I completed my night with complaints again from my two guests.

My Dark Sky Astrophotography Results

I combined my edits into one photo because the planets are small in the photos.  The detail in all of them are better than what I get at home.  You can see some of the dark regions of Mars and the definition in the cloud bands on Jupiter are supurb.  Dark sky astrophotography is my ultimate target condition.  Although my results cannot rival many others, they will soon.  Thanks for your feedback on my experience and clear skies!

Smartphone Astrophotography: In 6 Steps [Infographic]

Smartphone Astrophotography
Solar Prom

Interested in creating photos like this using smartphone astrophotography?  This list has six of my overall steps.  Including those I’ve used to create this photo of Saturn and are easy for you to adopt.  Try this and let me know your results.  Clear and dark skies!

 

Smartphone Astrophotography Infographic

Mars: The Red Planet on Display in Summer 2018 [Dust Storm]

Mars July 2018
Telescope: Meade EXT-125
Camera: Google Pixel
Photographer: Kevin Francis

During the last star party at The Virginia Living Museum, I laid eyes on Mars for the first time this year.  It rose above the horizon to become the fitting end to the night’s event.  Venus started the activities and Mars finished it.  Bright and unmistakably red, we all focused our telescopes on the red planet and made the same comment, “It looks cloudy.”  Currently Mars is experiencing a planet wide dust storm.  The Opportunity rover is hopefully going to survive to continue its record breaking exploration of Mars.

Barely visible on the north pole is the ice cap.  The southern ice cap is hidden from my view here.  At the time the planet was low in the sky, so seeing wasn’t great.  This is the best of the photos I captured that night.

Critiques of the photo

ISO too high.  Because it’s so birght, lowering the ISO and taking longer video should improve the picuture quality and detail.  This is the initial issue I can see.  Leave me a message with your thoughts on how I can improve.

Mars in Opposition

Mars is in opposition on July 27, 2018.  Based on the weather reports I will be under cloudy skies.  If you’re under clear skies, think about me.  Hopefully the weather man is wrong, very wrong.

Any planet in opposition is simply when the Earth is directly between the planet and the Sun.  Mars is also at it’s closest point to Earth on July 31, 2018.  That’s about 36 million miles between planets. Both of these events means it will be putting on a great show now through August 2018.  It will be bright and dominate the sky. Get your binoculars, telescopes and cameras ready.  Take lots of pictures, make lots of memories and do it with family and friends.  Clear skies!

Saturn: Photographing the Cassini Division 2018 Update [Rings]

Light travels about 2 hours from the Sun to Saturn to your telescope.   We can spend about that much time searching for the perfect picture of planet and rings.  Because the rings, saturn is most astronomers fan favorite.

About Saturn & The Cassini Division

My Astrophotography quest with Saturn is to photograph clearly the Cassini Division.  It is one of the most identifiable targets in the rings.  Simply because photographing the rings, have been challenged by light pollution, poor seeing, etc.  The Cassini Division is a major separation in the rings of Saturn that spans 3000 miles or 4800 kilometers.  And it is named after, French discoverer Jean D. Cassini.  The division is created by Saturn Moon, Mimas.  In addition it is located between the A and B rings.  By the way, Star Wars Fans, Mimas is often referred to as the Death Star Moon.  Look it up it’s true.

The Challenge

For me this is one of the more interesting features of the ring system.  Although the ring system is extensive, I’ve had little success photographing it clearly.  I do most of my astrophotography from my yard.  Therefore getting a dark sky and very little lights is difficult.  My neighbors have their lights on most of the night and I live on a cul-de-sac with a lamp post in the middle.  Saturn rises above my neighbors house around 10:30 pm and then has to pass several tall pine trees in order to be clearly visible.  Once past most of these factors, I’m still determining the best settings for the Pixel.

Saturn: Cassini Division
Telescope: Meade EXT-125
Camera: Google Pixel

The Latest Result

Take at look at this detail.  As always I can do better and therefore achieving dark, clear skies away from the city is my goal.  I took a number of video on this night and this was the best of the group.  Saturn never looked better for me.  It’s a 3D globe with cloud bands visible.  The rings reflect the shadow and the division clearly.  More importantly the result is cool.

Also important, there’s still some noise in the picture, and as I get more experienced with derotation, I will therefore create better results.

Let me know what you think in the comments below. Clear skies!

Derotation in Astrophotography [Field Rotation]

Derotation in Astrophotography is Amazing

I learned something new this weekend.  I learned about a technique in astrophotography called Derotation.  I’m amazed at what a little imagination and scientific skill can accomplish.  Grischa Hahn, had the bright idea to reduce motion blur in photos of the planets.  Especially those with days slightly greater than 9 Earth hours.  Derotation in Astrophotography is a powerful technique and is brilliant.  Derotation is built into his software called WinJupos, is an algorithm which does the following:

  1.  takes the frames of a group of images or video and flattens them out into a cylindrical shape.
  2.  Compares those cylinders to one another and matches them up
  3.  takes each aligned cylinder and recreates the image of the planet.

Is it really 3 easy steps, no and when you add a database of planetary positions, this becomes an indispensable tool in Astrophotography.

 

Jupiter no Derotation
Telescope: Meade EXT-125
Camera: Google Pixel

Jupiter with Derotation
Telescope: Meade EXT-125
Camera: Google Pixel

Here’s a photo on the left of Jupiter I processed without derotation.  I was happy to see the GRS (Great Red Spot) but could not bring out the detail beyond what you see here.

On the right is the derotated picture and the details are much sharper.  I was also able to brighten the photo in the process.

I’ve tasked myself to derotate many of my previous photos of Saturn and Jupiter.  So far with little success.  I’m learning that I need to improve my video capture techniques.  So look out for more of my work in the near future.

Beautiful Solar Prominence [Flares]

Telescope: Cornado P.S.T
Camera: Google Pixel
Filter: Hydrogen Alpha

Solar Prominence

The Sun, our closest star, is also a complex and active part of the solar system.  On Sunday July 8, 2018 we witnessed sizable activity in the form of a large solar prominence extending from the surface captured in the picture.

In our region of space, the Sun is responsible for filling it with highly energetic particles that interact with everything from planet’s magnetic fields, to your skin, to the beautiful Aurora at the poles, etc.  A solar prominence is one mechanism the Sun has to release these high energy particles.  The others are Solar Flares, CME (Coronal Mass Ejection) and more.

A solar prominence can range in size.  They can grow very small to greater than the diameter of Jupiter.  In addition they can disconnect from their origin point and land on the Sun’s surface hundreds of miles away.

Heliophysics

Heliophysics is the study of the Sun.  See NASA on their website.  This study is complimented by space weather professionals.  Moreover they study the Sun to protect our technology.  Our technology is sensitive to the Sun’s influence.  In 1989, the Quebec black out was caused by a CME.  The high energy particles from the Sun, induced currents in the power lines which overloaded transformers and well destroyed them.  Knowing  when they occur, give us a few hours to prepare.  Governments and companies can shut down their satellites and prepare powergrids for the surge in energy.  This saves billions.

The Sun’s Beauty

In light of this power, the Sun is so dynamic that it can be viewed for hours, days, and weeks of enjoyment.  Equally important, always view the Sun safely by using a telescope specific for viewing.  Enjoy and clear skies!

Mercury: My Astrophotography First Attempt [The Planet]

First Mercury Picture
Planet: Mercury
Telescope: Meade EXT-125
Camera: Google Pixel
Filter: Orion Skyglow Filter

This summer night was meant to be a warm evening capturing Jupiter, Venus & Saturn.  Mercury just happened to appear near the horizon and I thought I should give it a shot.

Just after sunset, the horizon is still very bright.  The Sun had to set further before the planet made it’s appearance.  Mercury is not going to hang out with you for very long.   So as long as it is up, you’ve got to be prepared or like me, move quickly to capture.

About Mercury

While Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun, its surface temperature swings from -280 F (-170 C) to 800 F (430 C).  It is also the smallest planet in the solar system and it’s year is about 88 Earth days.  If the name sounds familiar to you, that’s because it’s named after the Roman god Mercury.  Our exploration of Mercury includes a flyby from Mariner 10 and orbital exploration from the Messenger spacecraft.  In typical fashion, Messenger was disposed of by crashing down onto the planet after exhausting it’s fuel.

Shape & Color

The inner planets are visibly similar to the Moon.  Because of where they located in the solar system, they have phases.  In this picture it has a gibbous shape.  Throughout the year it

will look full or crescent.  You can put together a single shot with Mercury in the many different phases.  It’s also very orange or sometimes pink.  This is because of it’s location in the sky when you see it.  It’s very low and you’re looking through the largest amount of air possible.  The atmosphere bends the light more at the horizon so it exhibits a simlar color as the sun during sunset.

My Photo

I like it!  It’s going to be a rare capture for me, but this is good for a first attempt.  Share with me your Mercury experience in the comments below.